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Could Earworms Actually Boost Your Brain?

QPS Neuropharmacology

You hear a radio jingle or catch a snippet of a catchy TV theme song. All of a sudden, you can’t get the tune out of your head. You’ve got an earworm – a pesky melody that you just can’t kick – and it’s driving you berserk. But a recent study outlined in Science Daily suggests that earworms are more than an annoyance. According to the study, earworms may actually play an important role in memory and could even have positive implications for the treatment of memory conditions. So, could earworms actually boost your brain?

Graphic illustration of black-and-white head silhouette with music notes as hair

Studying Earworms: Why Now?

Science Daily recently reported on a paper entitled “Spontaneous Mental Replay of Music Improves Memory for Incidentally Associated Event Knowledge.” (In other words, how does a catchy tune help individuals remember certain events?) The paper is based on a study by University of California-Davis (UC Davis) researchers and was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. But why earworms, and why now? Petr Janata, a co-author of the paper, explains, “Scientists have known for some time that music evokes autobiographical memories, and that those are among the emotional experiences with music that people cherish most.” Janata continues: “What hasn’t been understood to date is how those memories form in the first place and how they become so durable, such that just hearing a bit of a song can trigger vivid remembering.” The researchers sought to explore both of those factors.

How Study Participants Utilized Music

Science Daily explains that the UC Davis researchers conducted three experiments over three different days, spaced weeks apart. Each experiment involved between 25 and 31 people. During each experiment, participants listened to unfamiliar music; then, a week later, they listened to the music again while watching unfamiliar movie clips. One session involved playing the movie clips without any music at all. The researchers then asked the subjects to recall as many details as they could from each movie as researchers re-played the associated music. Finally, researchers asked participants if they experienced any of the tunes as an earworm during the course of the study.

Exploring Memory Formation

The researchers discovered that the more frequently an earworm played in a person’s head, the more accurately they could remember the tune. Similarly, the participants remembered more details from the movies they were shown when the tune was played, resulting in what researchers called “near-perfect retention of the movie details.” Ultimately, the study points to the fact that earworms help to retrieve specific memories in a person’s mind, solidifying certain experiences – like the song that plays at the end of a favorite movie, for example. “Our paper shows that even if you are playing that song in your mind and not pulling up details of memories explicitly, that is still going to help solidify those memories,” Janata said.

Using Earworms to Understand Memory Conditions

In the Science Daily article, Kubit explains that people typically think of earworms as “random nuisances.” However, the results of this study show that earworms are a “naturally occurring memory process that helps preserve recent experiences in long-term memory.” With this in mind, the study authors reportedly hope to use the ongoing research to develop “nonpharmaceutical, music-based interventions” to help people suffering from dementia and other neurological disorders.

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The UC Davis study is the first research that formally links earworms and music-evoked remembering. However, it likely won’t be the last. With ongoing research, experts may be able to use earworms to help treat individuals with memory conditions, dramatically improving their quality of life.

QPS Neuropharmacology is a division of QPS, a GLP/GCP-compliant contract research organization (CRO) delivering the highest grade of discovery, preclinical, and clinical drug development services since 1995. QPS Neuropharmacology focuses on preclinical studies related to central nervous system (CNS) diseases, rare diseases, and mental disorders. With highly predictive disease models available on site and unparalleled preclinical experience, QPS Neuropharmacology can handle most CNS drug development needs for biopharmaceutical companies of all sizes. To study memory loss, QPS Neuropharmacology offers several Alzheimer’s mouse models as well as animal models of other neurodegenerative diseases. For more information about QPS visit www.qps.com, and for more information about QPS Neuropharmacology, visit www.qpsneuro.com.